Meaning-Making in a Season of Doubt
Mike Cosper | April 29, 2020
At the beginning of this season, we talked as a church about the opportunities present in COVID-19—opportunities to seek God’s presence and search our own hearts. It’s an invitation for self-examination, and it’s also an invitation to stop and think about our faith, our place in the world, and how we make sense of it. Perhaps our biggest challenge is the accompanying questions around our doubts: Why? Why this level of suffering and pain? Why does a loving God allow such inexplicable horrors to ravage society? Once you start answering that question, you start asking others. Why AIDS? Why war? Why murder? Keep asking, and we’ll boil it down to the problem of evil itself.
Some will tell you (as one historic catechism puts it), “God doth from all eternity foreordain whatsoever shall come to pass in such a way that he is not the author of evil” as though that were in some way clarifying. Some will say that God has chosen to wind up the world like an old clock and let it run itself out, and that these are merely the consequences of a creation left to run itself. And then there are those who either say God is powerless to help, or who say “what God? Clearly there isn’t one.”
To all of these, we can point to the Bible and find some better, if more difficult, answers. For example, we worship a Jesus who – in the Garden of Gethsemani – knelt and prayed with angst over the burden, shame, and pain of the cross. We worship a Jesus who suffers with us. We can look to the lives of the many disciples who endured trials, hardships, and torture, and see how God used their testimonies, written in blood, to build his church.
But perhaps most precisely we can look to the book of Job, where the Bible answers the question of suffering in a particularly Hebrew way – one that both answers and refuses to answer the problem of evil.
God allows the Devil to torture Job, and he loses everything, including his wealth and his family. His own wife tells him to just go ahead and die. Job, for his part, sits in the dirt insisting that it’s all for a reason and that at some point God is going to show up and clarify things for him. He argues with his friends for chapters that seem to go on forever, until finally, in Job 38, God does indeed show up.
“Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind and said:
“Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?
Dress for action like a man; I will question you, and you make it known to me.
“Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?”
In other words, God asks Job, “who do you think you are, questioning my motives? I’ll be the one asking the questions here.”
He goes on to paint a picture of the wildness, splendor, and fearsomeness of the creation, describing poetically all of the mysteries that surround Job that he’s barely paid attention to – storms, wild animals, seas, winds, and rain.
As G.K. Chesterton describes it, God “comes not to answer riddles, but propound them,” insisting to Job (who awaits explanation for his suffering) that it is a much stranger world than Job ever thought it was:
“God says, in effect, that if there is one fine thing about the world, as far as men are concerned, it is that it cannot be explained. He insists on the inexplicableness of everything. “Hath the rain a father?. . .Out of whose womb came the ice?” (38:28f). He goes farther, and insists on the positive and palpable unreason of things; “Hast thou sent the rain upon the desert where no man is, and upon the wilderness wherein there is no man?” (38:26)... He unrolls before Job a long panorama of created things, the horse, the eagle, the raven, the wild ass, the peacock, the ostrich, the crocodile. He so describes each of them that it sounds like a monster walking in the sun. The whole is a sort of psalm or rhapsody of the sense of wonder. The maker of all things is astonished at the things he has Himself made… Instead of proving to Job that it is an explicable world, He insists that it is a much stranger world than Job ever thought it was.”
Slavoj Zizek, a political philosopher, once summarized Chesterton’s commentary on Job by saying that God shows up and says, “look around you; the whole world is crazy!” As Zizek sees it, Job is a book written to show the pointlessness of meaning-making in the midst of suffering.
I might not go as far as Zizek to say it’s pointless, but I would at least say our efforts at meaning-making are always going to be limited. That’s God’s point to Job – not only should we be confounded by evil, we should be confounded and cast to wonder by all of creation. It remains, in spite of sin and suffering, a wondrous place.
And so, as we wrestle amid our present crisis, it seems there are two ideas that should be in dialogue with one another in our heads. First is the obvious one: COVID is nasty business and doesn’t belong in God’s world; it is an effect of the curse, a particularly vicious thorn that has stricken us in ways we couldn’t have anticipated. Second, the world remains a mysterious and wondrous place, inexplicable to you and me in many (maybe most) ways, and overseen by a God whose love drove him to join our suffering and die in our place.
Right now, as you read this, death is speaking loud and clear in a fallen world. I hope that we can resist simplistic explanations and clichés that dismiss the pain of these moments, and rather, like Job, behold the wonder of a God whose creations should stun into silence and wonder. It’s an odd task, but one I think we undertake far more easily than Job because we can not only behold a wondrous world, we can behold a wondrous cross and an empty tomb, two images that remind us that, while death may have the lectern right now, it most assuredly does not get the last word.
About the Cover Image
by Michael Winters
A photograph made through a window screen reminds us of the many screens our lives are mediated through these days - whether digital screens, or the window screens of our homes. It can be good to remember that you're looking through a screen. Remember that reality is brought to you screened and filtered, and thus always a bit distorted. But remember there is a real world beyond the screens to be seen, tasted, and touched.
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